2.11.2010

Death to Generic Espresso Blends (and generic thinking)

So much of coffee (at least at the high end - in the craft / artisan sector) is improving. The old methods and concepts are being re-evaluated, questioned and in many cases rejected. New models and approaches are being explored. And, as a result, coffee in improving.

But there is one thing that we seem to be passing by (or ignoring) for the most part.

Our espresso blends are far too often generic and weak - and our approach to creating espresso blends is dated, flawed and also generic.

It's time to change that.

At present it seems like most of the good coffee companies are trying to address the issues with their espresso blends by ignoring them - by instead introducing single origin espressos as an alternative. This allows them to express seasonality, to produce espressos that are not generic and to continue to progress.

But this is cheating - and is amateur.

Everyone who has cooked professionally knows that any good untrained cook can create great appetizers. You're working in one dimension with one palette. But it's plated entrees that separate the amateur from the pro. Now you have to work with a complex combination of not just ingredients but component dishes. This requires a kind of thinking and approach and palate that few amateurs possess.

Right now all the coffee companies that are offering their "house" blend and then a seasonal single origin are the equivalent of a restaurant offering a bunch of really cool, changing and interesting appetizers and then roast beef with mash and veg. It's weak and its unacceptable.

So what is the problem with these espresso blends?

I feel that it is largely due to the thinking behind them. Most commercial espresso blends are the product of formulaic thinking. It goes a little something like this:
  1. I need to create my house espresso blend
  2. It needs to be something that no-one will dislike
  3. It needs to work in milk and in shots
  4. It can't change in flavour over time
  5. What Brazil can I get right now that is affordable and will provide mid-tones?
  6. What Latin can I get that is affordable and will provide high notes?
  7. What's the least bad Indo I can get right now for the bass?
  8. And what East African can I get to provide fruit and wildness?
  9. Can I get enough of each one to not have to change formulation for a while?
There is literally something wrong with every single step of this.

What I would propose instead is a thought process that is far more simple but far more involved. Something like this:
  1. I need to create a seasonal espresso blend
  2. It needs to be something I like
  3. If it can't work in milk and as straight shots I need to create two or optimize for straight shots
  4. What great coffees are available right now that might work in espresso?
  5. What can I do with these coffees - what can I create?
  6. What do I want this all to taste like?
This is not impossible.
In fact there are companies that are doing this (Square Mile is at least getting close for example).

So why are so many otherwise good companies NOT doing this?
Why do so many espresso blends from decent roasters contain unacceptable indonesian coffees and defect ridden east african beans?

Laziness and fear.

Roasters... I'm calling you out.
Stop ignoring your espresso blend.
Be professional.
It's time to grow a pair.

26 comments:

James Hoffmann said...

Thanks for the mention. That pretty much is exactly how we do our espresso blend.

I think the only point where we differ is point 6. We don't have a very strong target profile, we just want the blend to taste like the component coffees. More and more we want each component to be visible/clear in the blend. The only thing we want every blend to be is clean and sweet. (Even when we use naturals in it).

The response to this from the consumer has been utterly astonishing - I keep meaning to write something about it. But for me the idea of a customer demanding a consistent flavour for every drink they drink, ever day of the year is completely demolished. Destroyed. We were kidding ourselves to begin with I think. How many baristas, myself included, can pull identical tasting shots of the same blend 10, 20 or 100 times in a row. We had no real consistency to begin with, so let's start celebrating the diversity instead of hiding it.

chris said...

That's great news James!
It's very cool to hear that consumers are accepting this. That means the only justification is Fear.

In terms of #6 - I wasn't thinking as much "consistent target profile" (or signature flavour) as I was "what do I want this particular seasonal blend to taste like"

Roger Wittwer said...

Hi Chris

This was one of the best posts about coffee blending I read for a long time. It represents exactly the way I try to go.

As example: I keep on roasting a blend containing coffees from Simbabwe and Malawi. Both stunning coffees. Lots of acidity and fruits. Big bold body and chocolate and a little nutty with milk. I know most people don't like it. Some "experts" keep saying it is not the way to go. Because it will never satisfy the masses. I keep on saying Yes. You're right. But it is what I and some other freaks like.
My other blend is completely different. But why roasting several blends with the same characteristics?

I fully agree with you. Roasters should be more courageous.

Keep up the good work!

Regards from Switzerland.

Roger

onocoffee said...

Chris-
I like the thoughts, but I wonder if it's really the roasters to blame.

Certainly, it would be ideal for the roaster to take this level of approach to espresso blends, but isn't the onus for this change on the retailer barista?

In the restaurant scene I am surrounded by, it's very easy to turn to the broadline distributors to take care of your needs, but there's a small and growing cadre of chefs who are pushing the local farmers and suppliers for greater quality ingredients.

To my mind, what needs to happen is the retailer owner/barista to take a more active approach in pushing and probing their roasters for greater quality coffees and espresso. Taking a bit further, perhaps the barista needs to get in there and really taste their coffees on a regular basis then utilize the coffees available to them to create their own "blend" for espresso that embodies their vision of coffee.

Maybe we should be "calling out" our peers to step up and challenge their roasters rather than merely sitting back and settling for whatever blend their roaster decides to provide.

Daniel said...

As a Barista and frequent cafe customer I have very much taken to cafes who are going seasonal with their espresso. To know that the cafe has a new house blend due to new season coffee is such an exciting part of drinking espresso that has never before been a factor. Cafes may have single origin pour overs or syphin on seasonal change but why can't we have this with espresso. Well we can, and it's happening. I just wanted to say that I have experienced it and boy as a customer it makes me happy. It makes me travel 40min on a train kind of happy!

Great post. I have only been thinking about this the past few weeks and you have nailed that thought so well!

chris said...

Roger... congrats. But I'm not really saying "create a blend you like" as much as I'm saying "don't create a single, static, unchanging formulaic blend as it will be generic."

Jay... if only the Baristas had that power. Hmmm... actually, might not be a great idea. In all seriousness, I think there should be a dialogue between the baristas and the roasters but the analogy that works for me (and which is going to piss off all the baristas) is the dialogue between servers and cooks - not the one between chefs and purveyors.

Daniel... as I said, I think adding a changing single origin espresso is cheating. Sure, it's a step in the right direction I guess. But really you need to replace your generic blend rather than augmenting it.

Austins said...

For the most part i agree with many aspects of this post. But i disagree with you comments relating to single origin espresso blends - if they can be called that.

What better way to promote seasonal changes in espresso flavour than offering single origins? There is no better way to create reference points than tasting single origins from different parts of the world. Providing single origins that represent a country through uniqueness not just 'balanced and sweet' is a good thing.

There is a level of transparency in drinking single origins as espresso. The flavour i am experiencing has missed the 1-6 'man made' steps you describe and is presented by how it is roasted and how it is extracted by the barista, i like this.

As a roaster and a green selector half of our struggle comes from mentalities early on in green selection via brokers that want to provide 'balanced & sweet' safe options of every origin. The point of difference between regions is lost and perceptions of how it should be become rigid.

My opinion is that there is room for both methods of showing seasonal change in coffee flavour. Single origin appreciation and espresso blending are two different things that are sometimes used for the same reason.

chris said...

Austin

I entirely agree that Single Origin espresso is a good thing - and something that is important and valuable. I've been a proponent for quite some time now.

But IMHO, it is not a replacement for creating a blend. It's taking the easy way out. It's the equivalent of sticking two figs on a plate and serving it as desert (to steal a famous example). It takes little to no skills beyond being good at sourcing and not screwing up the roast. There is little to no technique in it.

I would definitely support the continued use of single origin espressos. What I'm saying is that they should continue to be used to augment the primary espresso blend - but that primary blend should NOT be generic or formulaic. It should be seasonal and thoughtful and should showcase beautiful coffees in a personal way.

As a final note - there is a growing group of "single origin apologists" who excuse a single origin espresso that doesn't taste good by saying that they are "showcasing the unique flavours of the coffee " and "rejecting the status quo of balanced and sweet espresso." Personally, I find them both dishonest and lazy.

James Hoffmann said...

I think the expectations for an espresso should be the same as for a brew of a single estate/unblended coffee. (I feel less and less comfortable with the term 'single origin' - it seems tied to a different era of coffee consumption but that is besides the point, it doesn't look like people are going to stop using it)

The cup should be a balanced extraction representing the character of that coffee. If it isn't a good espresso, but a good brewed cup then there is a roast or brew problem - the coffee isn't to blame.

This, in my opinion, applies to any and all coffees - high acidity coffees included.

But we're getting off topic....

Austins said...

Some great points here, thanks for this discussion forum.

tal said...

Grow a pair?

dole777 said...

Great post and fruitful discussion. Let me dig into this…

I think there will always be a need for the first blend you described. As it is aiming "to square the circle" or as we in Germany would say try to find the “Eierlegenwollmilchsau”. Meaning to try to satisfy everyone.
There is no fear or laziness, it is what some - most likely the bigger - parts of the market participants want, not all, I am sure.
We have to keep in mind that a lot of espresso drinkers are used to “their” taste in coffee. Which is, yes you guessed right, sometimes burnt, watery - something we might not even call espresso. So if you provide them with single origins or a great unconventional blend, they might be turned off. Specialty is and always will be a niche, but hey, isn’t that great, a group of people being passionate about what they love and want to improve and play with.
I am not saying we should stop and keep doing what we are doing, but there always will be a market for both, the masses and the specialized coffee drinkers.

What I think would be much more sustainable is to work together with roasters across borders.
I think we all can learn a lot from each other. Why not try to get together somewhere – may during WBC times in London – and play with blends and single origins.

chris said...

There absolutely is a place for the sort of "lowest common denominator" "offend no-one" (or as I describe it - generic) espresso blend.

At lowest common denominator, generic coffee bars.

danapalooza said...

This is a perfect example of the sort of attitude that I feel is counter-productive to the industry, the kind of polarizing public posturing that became so popular during the Bush years. It's the sort of attitude that creates an "us vs. them"/"if you're not for me, you're against me" sort of mentality that I would have hoped had been scrubbed clean from our collective consciousness by now.

Do I enjoy an SO espresso? Hell, yes. Do I enjoy and appreciate the sort of thinking that goes into the creation of a seasonal espresso blend a la Black Cat? Again, hell, yes. Do I think that this sort of approach to the industry is good for the industry? Absolutely.

I love where the industry is going and hope that it continues to treat coffee as something is far, far more than simply a commodity.

But do I think that those who choose to continue to offer an espresso blend that presents a consistent flavor profile to their customers should be "called out" or should, by implication, be called cowards, slothful or negligent? Absolutely, positively not.

I will use this space to say that this sort of polarization of opinion is, in the end, going to be as damaging to the industry and its desire to widen its customer base, as you imply that sticking to a consistent flavor profile in espresso blends will be.

Look where it got us in national politics.

chris said...

The coffee industry has long been hindered by the idea that we should never criticize each other - never call bullshit on each other's coffee. This has enabled numerous mediocre to just bad coffee companies to flourish. It is in no-one's interest and holds coffee back.

As noted above - there is absolutely a place for generic, formulaic espresso blend. At generic coffee bars. The sort of coffee bars that consider the absolute best thing for the industry to be "widening its customer base" in some absolute manner.

Sure - what I wrote could be seen as polarizing. I don't have a problem with that. Fundamentally, I think there are two groups of coffee companies in the higher end of the industry - those who are committed to pushing coffee forward and those who want to protect the status quo. Hiding this division enables those who are lagging to continue to confuse and delude consumers. So you can call it polarizing - but I call it shining a light on the already existing differences.

Where to I fall on the divide?
Obviously... I want change.
If you don't - that's fine. It's your choice. But don't expect me to keep my mouth shut about it

danielofarabica said...

I've no problem with anyone voicing one's own opinion, i.e. "keeping your mouth shut" nor do I have any sort of problem with criticism.

My problem with what was written is not the substantive content (and I certainly believe there is such content in your post). It is with, as I stated in my post, the tenor of the post and the implication that roasters that don't hew to the guidelines set out in the post as "lazy" or "afraid" .

And I think everyone – not just those one might consider "generic" – is interested in widening their base of customers. Business is business. There's a reason even a well respected company like Intelligentsia opens up new stores. There is no reason to infer that I am implying that quality is not paramount.

Raising the tenor of the conversation to the point of a near ad hominem attack, i.e. the terms referenced above as well as implying that anyone who goes for consistency is purposely deluding and confusing customers or that by your saying so amounts to "calling bullshit" on those roasters is the epitome of the binary argument. There is no reason to demonize. The world is not a binary place (even Mr. Zell realizes that).

There is as little reason to assume that those who don't carry an espresso that changes constantly are purposely deluding and confusing their customers as there is to assume that one doesn't care about quality because they mention "widening their customer base".

PaniniGuy said...

Love your OP and the comments on this one. And yeah, you can be polarizing, but nothing wrong with that. Healthy arguments advance the cause.

As with Geoff's recent post on "the future of coffee", what we've got here (IMO) is a number of people - yourself, James, Intelli, etc. - well into plotting an end game while most of the industry is still working on the opening gambit.

Where I live 99.9% of all espresso consumption is in milk, and not the 6oz cappuccino variety. There are a half dozen exceptions among the 250 or so coffeeshops in the region.

Without getting into a ton of detail, I recently started working P/T with a local roastery that most would consider "average" or even "lowest common denominator". I have several goals in doing so, but part of it is to try to effect change from within.

It's great for top baristas to jump from one highly touted roaster to another or to start a new roastery business with like-minded coffee pros.

But what if a few of us went a different path and tried to educate and change the very roasters we complain about by working directly with them to "see the light" while changing their entire company worldview and culture?

They're not necessarily the enemy. Sometimes they just don't know how to cross the chasm and join the good guys.

Ric said...

malachi wrote:I have to say that I've yet to taste a blend that is even in the same league as great single origin coffees.

Coffeed Post

litwardle said...

I like the idea of the seasonal espresso blends. I totally disagree with the generic blends point of view though. There are some truly amazing non-seasonal espresso blends out there. Are you saying that if it's non seasonal then you don't like it?

I strongly disagree with this statement;
"Right now all the coffee companies that are offering their "house" blend and then a seasonal single origin are the equivalent of a restaurant offering a bunch of really cool, changing and interesting appetizers and then roast beef with mash and veg. It's weak and its unacceptable."

In my opinion that's a short-sighted and elietest point of view.

Lee

Jenny said...

Though I enjoyed the previous posts on the State of SF Coffee, my thoughts & reactions to this post on Generic Espresso Blends are similar to danapalooza's. As the owner of a (very) small roasting company, I don't think it's wise to presume to have insight into my and any roasters' process in creating an espresso blend, whether it's a generic (I prefer the term "signature") or seasonal. In my process, I probably used some steps from both of those lists, in addition to others that weren't listed. I think the post could have been more constructive without the lists because it draws a false dichotomy between those (who are able to) "choose" to come to the light, and those who simply "choose" stay in the dark, as if every roaster has the choice. I also think the pejoratives and the use of the phrase "grow a pair" were unnecessary and ultimately detracted from your message.

That said, I agree that it's important for aficionados like yourself and others to criticize & agitate for moving forward by making changes in the industry and I like the idea of seasonal espresso blends. But as danapalooza stated, and Zell acknowledged, only the larger roasters may, in reality, be capable of playing to both the aficionados and the common denominator, while the rest of us, who might still be just as focused on quality as the big guys, are constrained by our lack of time & resources. To use such a wide brush to paint one side as inherently lazy and fearful and by default, one side as inherently brave and forward thinking, does not take into account these constraints.

I realize that most of the people who read your blog are probably in the camp of those aficionados agitating for change, and maybe you could care less whether I or other roasters feel insulted by being labeled as "lazy" if we don't take you up on your challenge, but I think that's what danapalooza was getting at in his comments : is it constructive to agitate for change by insulting some of people in the industry that are already "on your side" in terms of focusing on producing quality espresso and expanding their customer base by other methods than the ones you are focusing on?

I feel like there could have been a better way for you to push for seasonal espresso blends without making those of us who don't (or can't) into lazy, fearful, balless, sticks in the mud.

Many coffee consumers already feel slighted, condescended to, and generally made to feel inferior by some of the very baristas & coffeeshops in the industry claiming to be moving the industry forward. Perhaps it is a change in this attitude, not only towards the customers, but towards our peers in the industry that will ultimately move us forward?

~Jen St.
www.scarletcityroasting.com

manseekingcoffee said...

Sorry. Had to break this up into two posts to get it to work...

I want to second your call to action. I’d love to see more roasters improve their espresso menus in ways that reflect seasonality and push the boundaries of what we've come to think of as espresso, creating new tastes and flavor profiles. Let’s see more coffee folks pursuing culinary artistry on par with great chefs. However, I don't think most of your critique holds up and I could do without the tone.

First, I want to clarify who you're directing your argument towards. If I understand correctly, it seems like there are two "culprits": 1) roasters offering SO espresso as a solution to seasonality and/or 2) roasters following the wrong approach/formula for generating a house blend.

As far as the SO users, "merely" offering a SO espresso is not lazy. Finding the right roast and right bean that works as a SO espresso isn't easy. While it may not be as challenging as formulating a blend, if it’s a good espresso, then kudos to the roaster who works smarter and not harder. The question here is whether a given SO espresso is any good. If it isn’t, then the problem isn't using SO espressos, per se, since I think we can agree, that there are really good SO espressos out there. Rather, the problem is that the roaster didn't do a good job in selecting and roasting one. Of course, they're still not lazy. They just aren't doing their job well.

The critique of the second group is a bit more challenging, mainly because I'm not sure who we're talking about - so-called 3rd wavers or anybody adhering to such a formula? Either way, I think the problems with this argument break down as follows.

First of all, your portrayal of these roasters strikes me as a bit of a straw man, or at least a bit of a characture. I'd like to know just how many roasters actually follow this line of thinking or follow the full line of thinking. Certainly more 2nd waivers do, and probably some 3rd wavers, but I'm not convinced that this is a wide-spread pattern of behavior, or at least as wide-spread as you suggest. If it really is an exaggeration, then your call to action is mostly preaching to the choir.

But assume that this "generic" approach is even somewhat widely used. Again, I'd ask whether a given espresso produced this way is any good? If the espresso is bad, then it's just as likely that a roaster has failed to execute the approach correctly or has roasted or blended badly and not that the approach itself is flawed. Of course, you say that "there is literally something wrong with every single step of this [approach]," but you don't say what those things are so I don't really know how to argue against this.

(See next comment...)

manseekingcoffee said...

continued...

I think your argument, in the end, is that this "generic" approach produces a fairly boring, or at least predictable, espresso profile. I’d generally agree and I'd love more roasters to push this envelope, but who is to say that this is either wise or should be the goal of every 3rd wave roaster – it’s not really a homogenous group after all. Few roasters have the financial luxury to explore culinary artistry. Maybe staying afloat and making incremental changes in customer habits is the best they can do. And besides, producing traditional profiled espresso with high quality, freshly roasted beans is massive improvement that should be lambasted.

That brings me to my last point about the tone, namely using terms and phrases like "Cheating", "Amateur", "Lazy", "Fearful", and not being professional. Your call to action could be important and inspiring without being insulting. Besides, these terms, as I described above aren’t even accurate. Case in point, a roaster may simply have never considered this approach because there are too many other things to learn and think about in keeping the business going. Insulting this work, seems to only distract a lot of people rather than keeping them focused on the core message.

As to the phrase "grow a pair," this is just straight up immature and sexist and pretty much intolerable in a business already populated by far too few women. If you, in fact, meant: "Grow a pair of breasts," then nevermind.

chris said...

Wow.
Lots of comments.

I'll try to take them in order....

Ric - absolutely. As with many people, my appreciation of coffee and my understanding of coffee has developed over time. Back then - to me - Single Origin espresso was the be-all and the end-all. That's no longer true for me. Everything changes. But, I have to admit, I still prefer a great single origin espresso to a generic espresso blend.

litwardle - I can see how you would think the perspective is elitist. Access to incredible coffees and the financial freedom to experiment with these coffees is a troubling issue in coffee for me. But folks like James are showing it is possible for even the small companies out there. What I don't understand is your comment that my point of view is "short sighted". In my opinion it's primary flaw may in fact be that it's thinking at an event horizon that is too far away. Can you explain?

Jenny - believe me I have a great deal of sympathy for the small coffee companies. After all, I used to manage such a company (in a tiny, tiny market). But as noted above - I think that folks like James Hoffman are demonstrating that a seasonal approach is not limited to the large companies. I know without a doubt that it is HARDER for the smaller companies. It's risky, and risk is harder for the smaller companies given how close they live to the financial edge. Access to coffees for these companies is more challenging. There is no doubt that is is harder - but I reject that it's not possible. In terms of my tone - I knew that I would raise the hackles of a lot of people (I am neither stupid nor tone deaf). This was a conscious choice. I feel that the "genteel code of non criticism" within coffee has had its chance and has failed. The days where every coffee gets 89 points or above and where we all tell each other how great we are have resulted in the consumer being unable to tell the difference between the fakes and the genuines. I figure someone needed to break this rule, regardless of any distress caused. As I no longer work in coffee - I figured I had the least to lose.

ManSeekingCoffee - I was a bit fuzzy it's clear. Believe me - I think season single origin espresso is a great thing and should continue. But I don't think it is a viable substitute for a season espresso blend. In other words, having a generic blend and a season single origin is NOT ENOUGH. Sadly, my experience is that the behavior I'm describing is VERY wide spread. In fact, the number of companies in the so called "3rd wave" that don't follow this model can probably be counted on one (or maybe two) hands - worldwide. It's not just that it's generic at a flavour profile that is the issue. It's that it is a product of generic thinking, that it leads to generic thinking, and that it fails to respect and cherish the seasonal nature of coffee. It's that, in the end, by freeing yourself from the need for your espresso blend to be outside of the constraints of seasonality ("consistent") you are far (FAR) more likely to create truly great espresso blends. In terms of "the best they can" - I understand what you're saying, but for too many companies this is not a realistic constraint that they fight against but rather an excuse for mediocrity (for not trying). As for tone... see the above comment.


Thanks for all your great comments!!

Peter G said...

Chris-

I agree with your sentiment- that roasters need to take responsibility for their blends, take the time and have the courage to rethink them each season.

I think the level of craftsmanship can go even deeper, however. Roasters, like chefs, can explore themes in their espressos. You're right to recognize Square Mile, their theme (say, "Winter") is an expression of that season's most delicious coffees, and is a tribute to that season. You allude to this in your point 5, and I think once you really start to understand coffees and how they work, it all opens up to you.

Here's how we work this. We have 4 themes we explore in our 4 constantly-available espresso blends. They are: "Sweetness", "Complexity", "Intensity", and "Balance". Seasonally (really, constantly), we re-address each of these blends, assess the coffees out there in the world, and try to feature the best of those coffees within the context of our four themes. An extraordinarily sweet Brazilian coffee would be a lead player in the "Sweetness" blend, would be one of the flavor elements of the "Complexity" blend, and would counterbalance acidity in the "balance" blend, for example. An intense natural Ethiopian has a home in the "Complexity" and "Intensity" blends, for obvious reasons, and so on.

Of course, none of these components is flying solo: we want all of our coffees to possess some balance, sweetness, and complexity. However, I feel like having a thematic purpose to a blend is important- it helps create an intention.

Using seasonally-incredible coffees and those overriding themes, the artful blender can then begin to explore formulas and roasting styles to achieve great coffees. In our case, formulas change dramatically from season to season, even within a crop-season (early-crop acidity, late-crop sweetness and body) It keeps us busy, but hey.

In this way, we balance seasonal produce with preferences and expectations- we always have a coffee accentuating the "sweet", although it might have a different set of aromatic notes than last season's "sweet" blend. The "intensity" blend is always better suited for milk than the others, even though its components and formula change throughout the year.

Continuing your restaurant theme, those 4 thematic blends, for us, are the equivalent of a balanced restaurant menu, giving the diner/drinker both a sense of variety and consistency, with only seasonally delicious ingredients. A seasonal special (aka Single Origin Espresso) rounds out the menu well.

I agree, old skool espresso formulas (5-4-3-2-1 blends and the like) are bunk. I can't believe how many roasters adhere to seasons-old "recipes" when blending espressos.

Peter G

chris said...

Peter,

As always - an incredibly thoughtful statement. Thank you.

I think that your point about roasters exploring "themes" in their espresso as a statement of craft is a really good one. I believe that a number of roaster do, in fact, do this - but are not explicit about this (are not transparent with consumers). And - as you allude to - I think that an intersection of true seasonality with an appropriate theme for that season would be the logical extension. But I really do believe that, for it to be truly effective, all of this needs to be really clearly communicated to the consumer. I feel that everyone will gain from this sort of transparency.

Obviously, where this translates to reality then is with the way the espresso is communicated to consumers. This, of course, means not calling a blend "Our Espresso Blend" when it changes season to season and theme to theme, but instead be explicit (even if it means simply renaming "Our Espresso Blend - vintage Fall 2010").

Then again... I also think roasters should be fully transparent about the beans in their blends - so perhaps I'm a bit outside the bell curve.

-c

PS. I could not agree more about blend "recipes" (obviously).

Doug said...

Ok, here goes. First off I suspect many of the most respected roasters are in actuality making their “house espresso” a seasonal espresso in a very real way. Speaking on behalf of our company that is very much the case. I guess the question I have when one calls it a seasonal espresso-is it an espresso that changes as new crop coffees come in or does one simply call it something that represents the season, so not really seasonal in any meaningful way other than its name? I looked across a number of roasters offering “seasonal espresso” and most all of them have coffees that are a year off harvest in them. Would this really be considered seasonal?

As for single origin espresso, I do think it is an excellent choice to offer at one’s espresso bar in that it is the most succinct way to communicate to a curious customer about how different an espresso can be. It moves espresso from a (perceived) very limited scope to one of endless possibility. I think that most all customers expect something specific from espresso and single origin allows them to very easily open their minds and expand their appreciation for something that might be a bit different. We enjoy and appreciate beers and wine of vastly varying profiles and this phenomenon has only happened over the past 20 years. I think single origin espresso provides the clearest path to this expansion. It worked imminently well with single-malt Scotches in expanding what people thought about Scotch and a similar path is successfully being taken by Bourbon and even Tequila. It is a path I think the public and aficionado public can easily understand.

In all of this however, I think we are losing sight of what is most important-expressions of deliciousness. That is what needs to be the basis for whatever we are doing. “Does it taste great?” should be the guide, not “Is it inoffensive?” I agree that clean and sweet should be what we are after as it has the greatest chance at being the most pleasing. We should pursue whatever it is that supports deliciousness. We should pursue it with utter transparency. The rest is posturing at complexity for the sake of complexity.

I enjoy a delicious well-crafted lager, as there are not a multitude of them. Would this be like a “house” espresso? I also enjoy the seasonal offerings from a number of great brewers. Some I do not like. So if I were to make an analogy, I would far prefer to have a delicious house espresso than a very missed attempt at a seasonal espresso.

So I propose this. Pursue deliciousness in all of its forms from great house espresso, to great single origin espresso, to a great seasonal espresso blend. But only pursue what you are capable of. This will change depending on the coffees you have access to as well as your overall coffee knowledge and the skill of your blending, roasting and the baristas that are behind the machine. It’s really quite easy, or its not. Pursue deliciousness. That’s it. If we all do this, we will all have more satisfied customers than we care to count. Here’s to that.

Doug Zell